Last weekend I bumped into my ex at a party. It had been years since I had seen Isaac and unfortunately it was a particularly bad time for me – only days before I had split with my most recent partner. So my feelings were a bit raw, my disposition melancholic, not exactly the ideal mind frame in which to see your abusive ex.
People don’t know what that word means, “abuse”. I’m not even sure I do. When I finally mustered the courage to talk with my friends and family about the violence that was happening in my home, the reaction was mixed. People seemed to be unsure if what I had gone through was really “abuse” — wasn’t this stuff just part of the normal conflicts that can happen in a relationship? People understandably didn’t want to take sides in what was a complex situation without any clear “right” and “wrong”.
So let’s get this out of the way, because I’m sure you’re wondering, here’s a list of the kinds of behaviours I’m talking about when I say “abuse”: Isaac used to go through my phone to see what I had been doing, he would go through my emails, he would go through my chat history, he would call me repetitively until I picked up and be furious I hadn’t picked up the first time, he would break my things when he was angry or if I wasn’t paying enough attention to him often by throwing them at me, he was jealous when I spent time with my sister because he felt I liked her more than him, he was jealous of all my male friends and would often accuse me of dressing provocatively when I saw them, he would grab me by the shirt front and pin me against a wall and scream in my face, he would pin me to the bed with his body holding my arms to my sides and scream in my face, if we were out he would kick me in the shins as he walked past. There was a lot of screaming at me while making my physically submit to his bigger stronger form, and when I say a lot, I mean almost daily.
Of course it wasn’t like that from the beginning. The gravity of these encounters increased over the course of our relationship, what was once muttering became screaming, became physical intimidation, became actually holding me still, became holding me by the throat, kicking me, spitting on me. My choices were to fight back, or stand as submissively as possible until he stopped screaming. If I fought back then the violence would escalate, if I was silent then he would become frustrated and say more and more outlandish things looking for a reaction. If I tried to escape by locking myself in the bathroom he would smash the door in. If I went for a walk he would drive beside me, window rolled down, telling me to calm down and get in the car.
I finally broke up with him after he dragged me into a car when he was drunk and proceeded to drive frighteningly fast around the back streets of Glebe while screaming at the top of his lungs. The death-defying ride only lasted about a minute, all of which I spent terrified for my life, with my heart in my mouth and tears on my cheeks begging him to slow down. When he side-swiped a car forcing him to slow to an almost stop, I opened the car door and made a run for it. He ran after me, grabbed me by the jacket still screaming. He ripped my jacket trying to keep hold of me but I managed to get out of his grasp, ran a few blocks away and hid in a backstreet in case he was looking for me. When it was clear I had evaded him I went to stay at my sister’s.
Here I am four years later at a party, seeing him for the first time in years. Panic animates my heart, and I can’t help but wonder, what the hell am I still afraid of? After all, Isaac is no longer a threat, and that was the problem right? If he doesn't have the power to hurt and intimidate me any more then what’s the issue? And he doesn't, Isaac has no power over me emotionally or economically, and he is no longer in a position to assert any physical dominance he might have. I’m safe. So why do I feel so vulnerable?
I can see my parents arriving at the party and my heart speeds up. He’s here at this party, he’s trying to make eye contact with me. I’m fading, becoming stone. My mum chats amiably to him, the one and only time I tried to talk to her about Isaac’s violence she said that it was always me who seemed dissatisfied and upset, not Isaac. That’s probably what she is thinking now too, that he is relaxed and friendly where as I am brittle and cold. I refuse to see them. My dad shares a smoke with him and then approaches me with an apology on his lips, he recently told me he missed Isaac “as a mate”. I smile stiffly at the friends around me, friends I have known since adolescence, who seem more or less fine in the presence of this guy whose violence defined my life for two years. I spend the night pretending Isaac doesn't exist while people talk at me. I would rather be anywhere else.
When I started writing this I wanted to understand how seeing Isaac can still make me feel so strongly. You’d think after four years this wouldn’t be an issue any more, right? But it’s not Isaac I’m afraid of, it’s the story about what happened between he and I that frightens me. As I’m sure you’ve heard, part of the trauma of domestic violence is the fear that you are just as culpable as the perpetrator. I’m sure you have read that a million times, that domestic violence victims don’t come forward for fear people won’t believe them, or that people will think that they are complicit in the violence — “But he’s such a nice guy! I mean I can see how he could be like that, but not without provocation.” You, the victim, must be part of the problem, because there is no way this “good guy” behaved like this all by himself.
I don’t think you can really understand how damaging this attitude is until you have been through it. Imagine you’ve had to live with this intense feeling of dread and self-disgust for years. Your life is characterised by fear and every submissive moment eats away at your self-respect until you are disgusted by your own snivelling pathetic self. Then you’re told the clenched fist an inch from your face threatening to smash you, that is you. You are the fist, the spittle flecked lips, the wild eyes. It is you who makes people afraid and helpless and hurt and desperate. I don’t know how to explain the brutal duality of that experience, it’s a fucking nightmare.
The sense that in some way I am culpable, was not something that arrived as an accusation. It was not that someone turned to me and said, “this is your fault”. It was just that no one told me it wasn’t. It was just how everyone’s eyes slid away from mine when the topic came up. It was the way no one ever addressed what had happened to me unless I forced them to. It was the fact that it didn’t seem to matter what I said everyone I knew still treated Isaac as though nothing had changed. Of course my friends and family don’t think I am at fault for the abuse I suffered. They also don’t know that every time they smile at Isaac or invite him to a party or go to his house without breathing a word to me, they are feeding the monster in my head who says it was me all along, that whispers maybe I deserved it and everyone agrees.
It’s hard to match our real life experiences with the things we hear about in the media. Domestic violence cases are portrayed in extremes, we are often exposed to examples of what happens after an abusive situation festers for years. It’s hard to approach the experience I had with the same sense of horror as the husband in Campbelltown charged with over 100 domestic-violence related offences, or the murder of Luke Batty at the hands of his father. The fact is that less than that, less than over a 100 examples of violence, less than the murder of a child or partner, anything less and we are told we should do nothing, that the best course of action is silence.
If I had stayed with Isaac there’s every chance that one day my story would of been extreme enough to satisfy the standards of violence set by the media. I can imagine the newspaper article describing how my mangled body was found in the wreckage of the car, how Isaac was drunk and dazed and remorseful. But why should it have to go that far? If as a society we are to address domestic violence, then one of our most important steps will be wrestling the story of abuse away from the sensationalism of the media. Unfortunately one of the best examples we have of an initiative designed to do just that, the NSW domestic violence education program REALskills, was recently axed by the federal government. It appears that no matter how pressing the issue of domestic violence becomes in the national conscience, as demonstrated by the naming of family violence campaigner Rosie Batty as Australian of the year and the overwhelming support for social media initiatives like Counting Dead Women, our government is still axing important initiatives and closing women’s refuges.
Our government is failing us. That doesn’t mean we have to fail each other. Yes, the Australian government should provide resources for people in abusive situations, government services have a large measure of responsibility in relieving the domestic violence epidemic. But the role of our government does not diminish the responsibility of each of us to one another. Compassion cannot be outsourced. Next time someone comes to you with a story of domestic violence, remember that they are told that it’s not “abuse” until they are bloody and broken, remember that they are shown every day that no one really wants to confront perpetrators, that the whole issue of domestic violence makes us cringe, remember that they already think they are complicit, and they are terrified that maybe they brought this on themselves, then prove them wrong.